Book Excerpt: The Kennedys

Author Thomas Maier uncovers intimate new details about America's most prominent political dynasty, from family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy to the latest generation in The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of the book, which will be released Oct. 7.

The Boys of Wexford

Ireland appeared strange and new, yet hauntingly familiar. From inside the presidential helicopter, hundreds of feet above the ground, John Fitzgerald Kennedy gazed out at the beautiful land below and reflected upon his journey. Something about this ancestral homeland stirred him deeply. "Ireland is an unusual place," he'd say before departing, "what happened five hundred or a thousand years is as yesterday."

The president's entourage took off that morning from Dublin and headed south along the rocky coastline of the Irish Sea on their way to Wexford County and the small hamlet known as New Ross. From this place, Kennedy's great-grandfather had departed in 1848 to escape a land tortured by famine and oppression to seek a new life as an immigrant in Boston. As if coming full circle, as if completing some generational journey begun by his forefathers more than a century ago, Kennedy returned to Ireland for a state visit in June 1963, the only Roman Catholic ever elected to the White House and the first American president to come to the Emerald Isle while in office. His aides and the press had questioned the usefulness of stopping in Ireland as part of a much larger European trip in which Kennedy inveighed against the Berlin Wall and the evils of communism. But Kennedy insisted on adding his family's homeland to his itinerary. During the four days in Ireland, there would be plenty of political tasks, conversations about trade and diplomacy, though everyone recognized, including Kennedy himself, that the real reason for this Irish excursion was purely personal.

Out of the mist of this soggy day, Kennedy could see the lush farmlands of Eire-hundreds of acres stretched over long, sloping hills, carved majestically into the horizon by hedgerows, granite walls and crooked streams. Sliding by, almost in a blur, were scenes that seemed torn from picture postcards, the kind that Irish-Americans send to loved ones to remind them of what their families left behind: ruins of medieval churches and headstones lost in a meadow; cottages with thatched roofs; farmers feeding pigs or tending to sheep waiting to be sheared; old lighthouses, once kept by monks, perched along jagged beaches and grassy peninsulas whipped by waves. All were quiet reminders of an ancient land, culture and religion that Kennedy possessed in his bones but often kept from public view. On this trip, however, the young and often reserved president would hide neither his roots nor his enthusiasm.

Through his window, Kennedy tried to recognize certain landmarks, sites he remembered from his trips to Ireland before he became president. While in the helicopter, the president ordered the pilot to fly by Lismore Castle in Waterford County, the stone castle where his sister, Kathleen, once lived as the widow of the Duke of Devonshire and where he had stayed as a young congressman during his first visit to Ireland in 1947. The whirling bird hovered momentarily over this ancient castle as the president stared at its massive square towers and battlements, lost in his own thoughts. For some Irish, Lismore Castle, built on a giant rock, symbolized the oppressive presence of the British, a site with its own history of bloodshed in the struggle for liberty and political control of the isle. For Kennedy, though, the beautiful castle surrounded by gardens of magnolias and yews undoubtedly brought back memories of his dead sister and a different time in the Kennedy family's lives together. In such a short time, Ireland had changed and so had Jack Kennedy himself. The president's craft lingered for what seemed the longest time and eventually swooped away; it glided over the tops of trees to the River Barrow.

Waiting at New Ross, where the mouth of the river opens, were a throng of schoolchildren, all dressed in white sweaters and assembled on the thick green turf of an athletic field, newly named Sean O'Kennedy Football Field in honor of the president. From fifteen hundred feet above, Kennedy's entourage of aides and family members could see the children in a formation that spelled out Failte, the Gaelic word for "Welcome." The town soon made good on its promise. When the helicopter landed, Kennedy stepped out gingerly-immediately recognizable in his deep blue business suit, his thick wave of auburn hair and the smiling squint of his eyes-and was swarmed by well-wishers. Because first lady Jackie Kennedy was home tending to a troublesome pregnancy, the president was accompanied by his two sisters, Eunice and Jean, and his sister-in-law, Lee Radziwill. "He was just so thrilled how they responded," Jean recalled years later. "I never saw him so excited. It was so touching, such a poetic experience."

A choir from the local Christian Brothers school soon broke out in a song, "The Boys of Wexford," a rousing tune commemorating the 1798 rebellion in that county in which many Irishmen, including members of Kennedy's own family, died or were injured attempting to end England's long-time presence in their land. Kennedy immediately recognized the song and began tapping his foot lightly. When a copy of the lyrics was handed to him, he joined in the chorus:

We are the Boys of Wexford, Who fought with heart and hand, To burst in twain the galling chain And free our native land.

When they finished, the president asked the children to sing it again. The tune would linger in Kennedy's mind for the remainder of his Irish trip and beyond. Another reminder of his own legacy came in one of the many gifts he received that day-a special vase of cut glass made by the nearby Waterford crystal firm, inscribed with his family's Irish homestead, an immigrant ship and the White House.

Some fifteen thousand people, many of them young schoolgirls holding American flags, cheered wildly as Kennedy slowly rode by in a limousine, standing and waving to the crowd from the car's half-opened bubble top. Despite a drizzle, the crowd roared its approval as the car moved into the heart of the town. "Kennedy … Kennedy," they chanted without pause as the presidential parade car arrived at the quay. Beside the ships docked along the harbor, a special speakers' platform had been constructed, but it had been built only after much bickering. At the heart of the dispute was New Ross's town board chairman, Andrew Minihan, a gruff, opinionated man who knew what he liked and spared no remark for that which he didn't. Minihan was, in the words of one writer, "a man whose integrity is as bristly as the whiskers and rough tweeds that cover him." The Secret Service and some of JFK's White House aides definitely rubbed him the wrong way.

Minihan first became annoyed with the endless debate about where to place the speaker's dais on the quay. "Every man must justify his own existence somehow," Minihan proclaimed to a group of reporters assembled in a bar before the president's arrival, "but I've better ways of justifying my own than standing around with your American G-men and arguing whether the northeast corner should be there, or there." And he moved his toes barely four inches to drive home the point. But Minihan's biggest gripe stemmed from the argument over a dung heap, a sizeable and fragrant pile of muck and animal excrement, often used as fertilizer, located within smelling distance of the speaker's dais. The Secret Service told Minihan, in no uncertain terms, that the pile of shit must go.

"Remove it?" he replied, indignantly. "I've no plan at all to remove it!"

Not one to be pushed around, Minihan staged his own rebellion by upping the ante. "As a matter of fact, we thought to add to it," he mused. "It would be good for the character of your mighty President to have to cross a veritable Alp of dung on his way to the New Ross speaker's stand."

Now that wasn't funny, not in the eyes of the sober-minded Secret Service men. The security detail argued that the dung heap posed a threat to the president. The agents insisted that the wives of the town council stay off the dais and banned a local marching band from appearing beside the platform. Their haughtiness only calcified Minihan's position. "I'll not live to see a sight more ridiculous," Minihan brayed to the press, "than your G-men combing out dung piles to see if we'd planted bombs and merciful God only knows what else in them." Eventually, the American ambassador, Matthew McCloskey, and some top brass at the foreign office in Dublin spoke privately with Minihan, telling him that his obstinacy would not do. Minihan let them know that he'd planned all along to have the dung carted away but objected to the airs put on by the Americans. As for the wives and the marching band, they got to stay.

When the big day arrived, Kennedy's aides feared that Minihan might be a wild card, a party pooper who could easily spoil the president's grand homecoming. He didn't disappoint. In introducing the president at the podium, the microphones suddenly went dead. "Can you hear me?" he asked. The crowd roared that they couldn't. Minihan, known for his hot temper, turned red and stewed. "We're in trouble right now," Minihan yelled. "Some pressman has walked on the communications."

When the sound system returned, Kennedy seemed nonplussed, almost amused. Word of Minihan's local rebellion, captured in humorous press accounts about the dung heap, had come to his attention. As he got up to speak, the president introduced his two sisters, Jean and Eunice, then recalled his family's ties to the thousands of Irish who had fled the Famine's death and despair, his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy among them, and journeyed from places like New Ross to find a new home as immigrants in America.

"It took a hundred and fifteen years to make this trip, and six thousand miles, and three generations, but I am proud to be here," the president told the crowd. "When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance."

From the book, THE KENNEDYS: America's Emerald Kings, by Thomas Maier; Copyright © 2003. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.